The ‘Nation’s’ weeping may have only just begun

Long widely and casually assumed, the concept of the Yankee’s hegemony and its sheer inevitability has been ravaged since the memorable autumn of ’04. So when the Bronx bullies ran roughshod over the Fenway pets the last couple of months it was easy for “the Nation” -- its collective mind gripped by group-think, like that of any other cult -- to laugh it off. Wrong!

In those three long weekends that they met after the All Star Game the Yankees toyed with the Red Sox and totally out-classed them. It remained for the calendar to play out allowing the Angels to finish the task while doing so with a zest that brought about the greatest humiliation the John Henry regime has yet endured.

But it was the Yankees who took the starch out of them, exposed their considerable flaws, and set them up for the knock-out blow that the Angels with all of their own celebrated baggage rattling their cage were overjoyed to deliver. As the tormentors of Red Sox pretensions, you might say the Yankees are back.

Not that any of this avenges ’04 or restores the relationship’s historical imbalance. All of that will take a whole lot more than one season’s indignities. Nor does it make any kind of statement about the Yankee’s high hopes in the on-going playoffs. The Angels, who believe themselves inspired, will have much to say about that in the days ahead. But as smack-downs go this one was not minor.

The Yankees bear on. Haughtily! The Red Sox scatter to the winds. With their tails between their legs! As we all know having had the silliness of it pounded into us senselessly it is mainly all about them and their hyper ventilated rivalry. You are free to feel embittered, dear members of “the Nation.”

Nor should you write off this spectacular twist of fortunes as a mere aberration. That’s not a mistake Theo Epstein, the resident wunderkind, is likely to make, although one can’t vouch for Master Henry or other lords of the local baseball manor. If his widely held reputation for genius was badly bruised this season, Theo is nonetheless too smart for that. Moreover, the comeuppance may have been healthy. He needed to graduate from the status of “Boy Wonder.” He’d been drifting into the dangerous tendency of outsmarting himself, a common fault of the young and precocious.

In retrospect, who would defend his off-season moves importing the bloated Brad Penny, the ancient John Smoltz, and the fragile Rocco Baldelli while arranging to have a committee of shortstops composed of Messrs Lugo, Lowrie and Green. Time will prove he overstepped in his openly defiant pursuit of Junichi Tazawa who may win some games here but is unlikely to be worth aggravating all of Japanese baseball. He was taking bows for such allegedly clever and cost-effective moves in March but in October they look rather different.

Of course, Theo’s legion of media apologists would rather emphasize his late-season capers landing Victor Martinez, Billy Wagner and Alex Gonzalez to atone for the off-season miscalculations. But Wagner is probably already history and it may be wise to see how the pitchers dealt to the Indians fare before pronouncing the Martinez deal brilliant. In the meantime, they might ask Theo what he was thinking when he gave David Aardsma to the Mariners where he promptly became one of the league’s best relievers. Keep in mind such other earlier major blunders as the unforgettable Eric Gagne.

There are no infallible general managers in baseball. But Theo can take heart from the fact that a year ago savants of another town were calling Brian Cashman an “idiot.”

It will be an interesting off-season full of lusty challenges. Early betting is on Jason Bay fleeing to the West Coast. Jonathan Papelbon has given them food for thought. Shortstop remains an issue. Has the disenchantment with Daisuke Matsuzaka turned profound? Has Tim Wakefield progressed from all-star to all-done in three months? Manny Delcarmen slipped this season. So did Hideki Okajima. There’s the growing suspicion around the game that their reputedly vast corps of young pitching is significantly over-rated which, whether true or not, lowers its trade value. They need to worry about how much the gallant Mike Lowell has left and deal with the painful choice of dumping Jason Varitek, who is unquestionably finished. They ought to ask how much more under-achieving is tolerable from J.D. Drew?

Leading the list, however, should be the matter of what to do about David Ortiz. The owner will protest vigorously and few of the apologists will dare come out and say it but the days of building their aspirations around the alleged “Big Papi” are over and done with. His late season statistical blip, which got the apologists all atwitter, was mainly accomplished against weak opponents in garbage time. More revealing was his .083 post-season batting average which was roughly comparable to what little he managed to do in those last 10 games with the Yankees which effectively decided their season.

It should also be noted that no matter how much the team devoutly wishes it to be otherwise Ortiz remains burdened by the steroid tag. We are still waiting for that explanation about what exactly he took and why it landed him on the infamous 2004 roster of performance enhancement cheats which he promised more than two months ago.

Owner Henry apparently thinks he can “blog” this problem away and he has suggested it is a matter of high treason to raise doubts about the big fellow’s honor. But if he thinks that will resolve the matter or shut up those who wonder why Ortiz should be treated any differently than the other unlucky lads who have been outed -- however unfairly -- he is sadly mistaken. The excuses Ortiz has offered thus far are identical to what Rafael Palmeiro extended when he was run out of the game. Palmeiro has already paid a terrible price while Ortiz has received nothing but sympathy. Is that reasonable? Nor does the fact that by all accounts David is ‘‘a nice man’’ have anything to do with it.

Not since the new boys came to town has there been so much to deal with. The hot stove will be rather more like a bonfire this winter nor will they dare try to do it ‘‘on the cheap’’ this time.

Meanwhile, the Yankees soar. If they can find a way to outwit the Angels their remarkable reformation would become instantly complete. That won’t be easy because the Angels are a very smart team that much exceeds the sum of its parts. But if the Yankees do make it and the Dodgers prevail in the NL playoffs, Major League Baseball will have the epic World Series and coast to coast, ultimate markets, ratings blockbuster it has so long yearned for. And it would be a dramatic, immensely satisfying and total return to full glory for the Yankees. How much weeping, wailing and bitter gnashing of teeth might all of that provoke in “the Nation,” do you think?

It’s amazing how swiftly and unpredictably things can turn around in this crazy game. In February, Alex Rodriguez was a pariah being fitted for sackcloth and doused with ashes. In October, he is verging on sainthood.

But the converse obtains as well. It wasn’t so long ago that they were talking about the Red Sox brinking on “dynasty,” that magic word. Now the fear rises that when Brother Papelbon collapsed in all of his gusto the other day against the Angels he brought to a sudden, screeching end a nice little era of Red Sox eminence.

It is possible.